Spawned Fusion: Steve Niles Interview

[Steve Niles Interview]Steve Niles is a guy you may not have heard of before a month ago, but now it seems you can't avoid his work at your local comic store. Steve is the writer of the Todd McFarlane Productions title "Hellspawn." He's just finished "Spawn: Book of the Dead," an ambitious project which tells the history of the Spawn universe in a very literary way. He's also been tapped by Todd McFarlane to co-write the sequel to the "Spawn" motion picture.

On top of his work for TMP Niles is involved in a number of creator-owned projects. "Fused! #1" came out just a few weeks ago, which tells the story of a man trapped inside the body of a robot. A Frankenstein adventure story with some real heart. Last week CBR News told you about a new book he's got coming from IDW Publishing called "30 Days of Night." And arriving very shortly in a comic store near you is "Savage Membrane," a novel with illustrations by artist Ashley Wood also from IDW.

So, Steve's a bit busy right now. Even with a full schedule of work to take care of Steve was happy to sit down and talk comics. In this real audio interview with Niles we enjoy some Thai food at the "Arune House" in Toluca lake (not named after CBR News writer Arune Singh incidentally) and you'll even get to hear Steve burp up a bit of sate at one point! Steve talks about "Fused!," how it's doing and where it's going next, the status of "Hellspawn" and how he dealt with the Miracleman debacle, what "Savage Membrane" is and how he got hooked up with Ashley Wood, a look at the "Spawn 2" film with some plot revelations and much more.

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Jonah Weiland: First, introduce yourself. While you've been a part of this industry on various levels for years, you've written stuff recently that seems to be coming out all at once. Talk about your history briefly and what you're doing right now.

Steve Niles: Well, briefly, I always wanted to be a writer, but I started as a publisher. I had my own company called Arcane Comics and I did a couple of things. I did a book called. "Fly In My Eye." People liked it, but it was a disaster business wise. It was 225 pages and I only charged $9.95 for it. I paid everyone page rates. It was a huge disaster for the business. Then we did Clive Barker lithographs and that was the point where I realized I didn't want to be a businessman. I wanted to create stuff. So, I started packaging stuff for Eclipse. I created the series "M" with J. Muth. I wrote adaptations of Clive Barker stuff, did more "Fly In My Eye," and slowly but surely (it's been my biggest thing over the years) I convinced people I wasn't a publisher. I wasn't a publisher, I wasn't an editor, wasn't a suit, I always just wanted to be a writer. I've just been plodding along all these years doing it, but it was meeting Todd McFarlane who's given me a lot of opportunities to get things out there and like you said, this month is a crazy month.

JW: Let's start with "Fused!" It actually comes out tomorrow, we're sitting here on March 12th, a Tuesday, and tomorrow your first issue comes out. Talk about the history of this project and pitching Image on this book.

SN: Originally how it started is we knew "Spawn: The Dark Ages" was being cancelled and we wanted to keep the team together. I always wanted to do an Image book, so I came up with about four ideas. I ran them past Jim [Valentino] ... (burps!) Excuse me, now there's a good edit! There's your sate! ... I ran a few different ideas past him and "Fused!" was the one he picked out. This one sparked with him, I developed it as much as I could and pitched it to him again with some illustrations and he went for it and here we are. We've changed art teams in the mean time because it didn't quite work out with the original art team from "Dark Ages" because they're doing books at Chaos! now. Now I'm working with Paul Lee and the first issue comes out tomorrow and it already has taken on a life of its own.

JW: Give a brief outline of what the book is about.

SN: On the most basic level it's about a scientist, a robotics engineer actually, named Mark Haggerty, who happens to be an amputee. He's missing a hand. It was a real incidental thing that I threw in there because I thought it would be a nice touch. I thought it would give him extra motivation to test out a suit where he'd be able to use his limbs again. He winds up testing out a suit that's intended to be a mobile ambulance. A suit where a guy could get in and one person could run in with a mobile triage into fires and stuff like that. In the story, what will wind up happening, because of an accident he becomes permanently fused with the suit. The latch isn't stuck, it devours his body.

Originally I planned on doing a lot more adventure stuff, but now I'm just so into the idea of trying to find out what this guys life would really be like. Still, there will be other super-heroes and super-villains, but with where we're heading now, his response is going to be much more pedestrian, much more real life. That's the question that kept coming up with me is, just because you're given special abilities are you required to get cats out of trees? Why can't you just sit in your yard and have a big chair made? Why can't you do that? I want to walk that line a bit with this story.

JW: Where did you find the inspiration for the series?

SN: Probably Frankenstein. I've always really been into the idea of the man trapped inside the monster. That and there's a lot of really obscure movies like "The Colossus of New York" which I guarantee nobody's seen. "Donovan's Brain." All these stories that are about piecing together a person, having a man trapped inside a shell.

JW: Talk about working with Paul Lee. How did you guys hook up and who is Paul Lee?

SN: Paul Lee is a great artist who I have known since my Eclipse days. DO you remember those crime trading cards? He did the second set, I think, with the gangsters. It was when that whole serial killer set came out and everyone was going crazy. He worked at Eclipse then. I didn't know him, then. We wound up meeting a few years later through mutual friends and actually did a story together, his first comic, for "Dark Horse Presents" called "Iced," that Bob Schreck got us to do. [Paul] illustrated a little book that nobody can find, luckily, called "Freaks from the Heartland," which is a story that I'm redeveloping now. We've tried and tried to do a project together and then just recently over the holidays this thing happened. I realized I didn't have an art team for "Fused!" and I literally called him and asked, "Do you want to do a comic? How about a comic in two weeks?" And he did it! He's doing everything from the pencils through to the coloring and the lettering. He's handing in complete pages. I can't say enough about him!

JW: Talk about the initial orders for issue #1. I know a lot of importance is put on orders for that first issue because you gauge the success of a series based on that. What were they like and were you happy with the initial orders?

SN: [Todd McFarlane Productions'] Larry Marder told me one thing. I called him in a mad panic before this happened. He's been a good friend for a few years, so I called him and said I don't know what to expect for numbers. He said, "Here's the rule: you're going to be shocked regardless." Sure enough he was right. They weren't extremely low and they weren't extremely high, just high enough to keep everybody happy. I have to remember there was a lot of confusion with this as it was solicited with one art team [and was published with another]. I did a blitz. I went to the Master List, I got every retailers address I could, every comic book site, everybody, and sent page samples and cover samples so that everybody could see Paul's art. I was like, "If you didn't like it before, look at it now." So there was a little bit of confusion. I think with all that we're doing pretty good and I expect the numbers to go up. We'll see.

Paul feels the same way I do about these things and we'll see the first story arc through, regardless. If there's one thing I can't stand as a reader or creator it's an unfinished project.

JW: What's the future hold for "Fused!?" I know it's early, but are there plans for a follow-up, collection and what about other media options such as television or film? Is that being investigated as well?

SN: Definitely. Yes to all of those.

First in comics. Ongoing. I have it plotted out for the next year. Including a spin-off, because like I said there are super-heroes in this that will appear in about the third issue. There are a group of super-heroes called The Implementers, government-sanctioned super-heroes. They sit around the station like fire fighters do. You know, waiting for the bell to come in, then they put on their leotards or whatever, they run out, do whatever mission is assigned them, come back, punch their time card and they leave.

I'd like to do that in comics and I'd like "Fused!" to go on. I've already had some nibbles, some interest in "Fused!" as a movie property, which I think is a natural. One of the aspects of the character that people won't know is that the suit is going to take on his personality at some point and he's going to wind up being able to control it and at some point a human face is going to be able to be seen through that. I think that's going to be a big help in bringing a bit more of a movie feel to it. [Making him] a more identifiable character.

JW: At the moment it's only a four issue series, but if it should do really well and you see orders pick up you'd just continue it from there?

SN: Yup. I'd be torn to either do another #1, because I love #1's, or just continuing. Just start with a number five. The stories are there, that's no problem.

JW: The other project that you've got coming up, a creator-owned project, is "Savage Membrane" from IDW. That's a very different project from "Fused!" Talk about it a little bit and the audience it may appeal to versus "Fused!" or do you think the same audience will be interested?

SN: I think the same audience will be interested. (Loud sound goes off in background when someone enters the restaurant.) (laughs) Sounds like someone just got gonged! (laughs)

First, it's a novel. 40,000 word novel, very short chapters. It's this character I've actually done a couple of times before in one of the issues of "Fly In My Eye," a character called Cal McDonald, he's this monster hunter. He was also in four issues of "Dark Horse Presents" in a thing called "Hairball." This is just this character I've had around for a long time. It's a first person narrative like Raymond Chandler. Very noir, very funny, hopefully. I think it will appeal to the same people, but they have to tell me.

JW: How did you get hooked up with Ashley Wood on it?

SN: I met Ashley at the McFarlane writers conference. It was me, Brian Holguin, Ted Adams, Beau Smith, Larry Marder, Todd, Brian Bendis and Paul Jenkins. Oh, and Rick Veitch. Sorry Rick! This was when "Spawn the Undead" was out, "Hellspawn" was being ramped up, "Spawn: The Dark Ages" was still going. There was this whole push they were making for publishing. Ashley was there, oh and Greg Capullo was there, too. Pretty much all the McFarlane people were there. So I met Ashley and we hit it off right away. We shared a lot of similar ideas.

JW: How long ago was that?

SN: Two, three years.

JW: So you guys have been plotting to do something together for a while now?

SN: Oh yeah. Since I took over "Hellspawn," we worked together there. He's always liked this character. I have another book from this character, short stories, scripts. I'm gonna hopefully be pitching a new comic series with him soon and Ashley's always been very supportive.

JW: The other projects you're working on, and these are the more high-profile, at the moment, are "Hellspawn." Series writer on that. You've got "Spawn: Book of the Dead" coming from Todd McFarlane Productions. Let's start with "Spawn:Book of the Dead" because it intrigues me the most. It's a rather ambitious project. It's a book that tells the history of the Spawn universe from day one as far as I can tell. Discuss this book a bit and what place it will hold for Spawn fans. What is this book?

SN: Hopefully it's not just for Spawn fans. That was a thing Todd was adamant about was to try and create something that you could pick up without ever having read a comic or seen a Spawn movie, bought an action figure or anything like that. Pick it up and you'll get the gist of what's going on. Essentially what this started out as was this was the Spawn bible. They had one that came out and you opened it and there's Al Simmons, there's a picture of him, his height, weight, sign, and [Todd] said we can't do that again. So Todd said take a crack at prose. Do about 2500 words per character, try to flow it all together and see where you wind up. That's what I did. I hadn't even written "Spawn: The Dark Ages" yet. I sat down with all the Spawn comics, all the mini-series, all the off-shoots, the movie, the animated series, I tried to take it all in. Ashley had already done preliminary sketches of all the characters and I just started writing. I started to try to tell it as a story as if I was sitting here with my Uncle and he went, "Who is this Spawn?" Now we've got this huge illustrated guide to the Spawn universe and I'm very happy with it.

JW: How is it being marketed?

SN: I think it's being marketed more as a book. I think it's gotten so far away from the guide to the Spawn universe. It's a book of it's own. It does tell a story. I've updated it now so that it includes the events that happen in issue #100 and all that, so we're right up to date.

JW: Who's providing illustrations for it?

SN: It's all Ashley Wood. Beautiful stuff.

JW: All new stuff?

SN: Yeah.

JW: The other project you're working on is "Hellspawn." What's the status of that book? Where is it going?

SN: I took over after Brian Michael Bendis did it.

JW: Those are some big shoes to fill.

SN: Those ARE some big shoes to fill! There were a lot of loose ends I had to pick up on and I spent a few issues trying to work out those loose ends. Then the Miracleman thing started. Miracleman was going to be introduced in the pages of "Hellspawn." So, I was given that and I was given a few other characters to play with. I was playing with those for a few issues and then, I'm sure everybody knows, this trouble came up between Todd and Neil [Gaiman] about who owns the rights to what. So now that's been pushed aside. I'm finally closing the door on some of the old characters. I've wrapped up about a four-issue storyline I've been following with this character Cy-Gor. Now, I'm sitting down with Ben Templesmith and we're starting a whole new series really focusing in on the horror. No sideline distractions. No more circus. Getting down to the actual nitty gritty comics. I'm really happy with the way things are going now. It's one of the few horror books on the stand right now. I think people would really like it if they check it out.

JW: If a reader wanted to jump on the book at some time, when would be a good point?

SN: Issue twelve. Check out issue eleven to see if you like the vibe of it, but issue twelve is really fine. The one thing I've been trying to do is you don't need to know any background information to know this thing. This is a story about a boogie man. This is a guy who's dead. That's always been the case with Spawn, but in "Hellspawn" he's dead dead. I mean he's not worried about his wife, he's not worried about his past, who killed him or nothing. This is the specter living in the city, trying to figure out what the hell he is and having really strange adventures.

JW: "Spawn" in the early days was the top selling book, not only for Image, but for the entire industry. The book has changed a lot since then. There've been a lot of spin-offs and most notably Todd McFarlane's direct work on the book as far as penciling has greatly decreased, as he's not doing it anymore. But there seems to be a refocusing of energies on the stories for all the Spawn books over the past couple of years. What do you think "Spawn" offers today that it may not have in the past and for all those people who dropped it why should they come back to any of these titles?

SN: Well, with the initial "Spawn" book there's two reasons: Brian Holguin and Angel Medina are doing beautiful work. I've always read "Spawn." Always gotten a kick out of it. I think if people have lost interest in "Spawn" it has a lot less to do with the material. I think people get into their little clubs and the niches and they decide they don't like somebody. I know people who didn't read Marvel for years because of Jim Shooter and what they perceived as his crimes. I think if people would just bother to pick up an issue, specifically because of Holguin...I mean Holguin is a great writer and he's been doing some really interesting stuff.

As a writer I think Spawn is a great character because he's one of the few characters out there that's seeking definition. Every time you sit down with Spider-Man or Batman it's like, "You've got to write within these walls! Do not step outside of these walls!" That's really challenging and kind of a dead-end at some point. So there's always new stuff coming up. I think that's a good reason. Not to mention with "Hellspawn," you know, [artist] Ben Templesmith is really coming out of nowhere and showing himself to be a great talent.

JW: We've covered Ben's work on a couple of occasions at CBR so I'll make sure to point that out.

Talk about how you got hooked up with Todd McFarlane. How did this friendship and business relationship develop?

SN: It's a little convoluted. I was working as a writer for Horror Online at Universal Studios. I was doing reviews, doing articles. My wife was one of the Web producers there. I had a contact with Todd McFarlane, so I did an interview with him. I realized Ted Adams and Beau Smith both worked there and I worked with both of those guys at Eclipse. They were like, "You gotta come work here!" So Ted started slipping me some things. I did an Ozzy Ozborne interview. I did Paul Stanley and Peter Chris for the Kiss and Ozzy magazines. Then I did episode guides for the animated series and then I got the call you always hear about, the call out of the blue from Todd...We just started talking.

One thing I love about Todd is whenever we start talking about a story we don't stop for like two hours. We're not sitting there talking about other people in comics, or how to sell the comics, is the price too much, no, we're talking about stories. That's what our friendship has been based on. We really like to work together. We discovered recently with "Spawn 2" when we sat there in the same room with our laptops and he would go, "Steve, this part sucks." Well, okay, let's cut it then. "Can I read this dialogue to you because I don't get this?" He's the same way. If it doesn't work, great, cut it. That is so hard to find someone who works like that.

JW: As you alluded to you are co-writing the screenplay for the sequel to the "Spawn" film, and, let me add, it's pretty cool that you happen to get a call from work you did for an online site, basically, and now you're writing a screenplay for a major motion picture.

Talk about writing the "Spawn 2" movie. I know you recently spent time with Todd working on the script together. How did you land that job of co-writing it with him and talk about the story a little bit, too. What can we expect?

SN: Me and Todd have already sold two pilots for UPN. They didn't go any further, but we had some experience working together. I don't know quite when I got hooked on to this project. I think it was just when me and Todd were talking and next thing I know we're in a meeting pitching a movie and somehow I'm writing it. That's literally how it goes. I have a file at home that's like three-feet wide that's nothing but Todd's ideas that we've developed. This is just another one.

The only thing Todd said is he didn't want to repeat the same thing he did before. The first Spawn movie represented Spawn at the time. Now, we're all older and he wanted to do something a little different.

In talking about the story, what "Spawn 2" is about is here's this guy who's been dead and gone for over 10 years. It was five years from [the time he died up till the first movie] and then add another five or six years to that. He's been dead and sitting in an alley for a long time! He's been forgotten. He's a supernatural force. What we're doing in "Spawn 2" is we're telling three or four separate stories; Sam and Twitch and a case they're on about a ritual murder, a criminal conspiracy with the Police that involves the area around Rat City and basically all these story lines intersect at Spawn and he affects each one of them.

JW: Often times the sequel to a film isn't quite as strong as the first. So how are you and Todd trying to avoid those traps and improve upon what came in the first film?

SN: Well, one, this movie isn't going to be guided by special effects. This will be a story-driven movie. I think that's the key. The story is coming before the character. I know there's a lot of hemming-and-hawing going on because [fans] aren't going to see Spawn fight Overtkill, but I think they're going to wind up seeing something new and different that they're really going to enjoy.

[In sequels] there are those rare occasions like "Aliens" where they completely redefine the thing and it does work. I'm not making comparisons, but it can be done.

JW: What is the current status of the film. Has it been signed with a studio yet? Any other news?

SN: Right now the script has been turned into the producer and they're giving it a read and the studio people are going to look at it and hopefully come back with notes and we'll see. The whole thing could completely change. Next time we're talking it could be "The Special Effects extravaganza of the year!" (laughs!) We'll see.

JW: So it's not a definite go yet ...

SN: It's just like anything [in Hollywood.] Step-by-step. I'm not going to say too much because if I say, "Yeah, it's a go," it'll be cancelled by the time I get home.

JW: You're breaking away from the Spawn world with "Fused!" and "Savage Membrane." Question is, do you have any other non-McFarlane coming out soon?

SN: I'm sure working on it. I've got a couple of things I'm working on. [Editors note: At this point Steve motioned to a mock-up of his new series with Ben Templesmith "30 Days of Night" that he wasn't quite ready to talk about yet. Don't miss our interview with Niles about "30 Days of Night."] Right now I think that's about it. I'm pitching a few things around. I'm trying to get some more things started. It's all just time right now. I've got the material; I just need to find a home for it.

JW: Comic wise whom do you admire the most and what do you read today?

SN: Well, right now...who's the writer on "Spider-Man?"

JW: J. Michael Straczynski.

SN: Yeah, him! (laughs) I was trying to avoid saying "Strazlookavictch" ... ya know, I'm really loving his stuff. I think you'd be surprised by what I read. I go in and I buy mostly Marvel, don't really buy too much DC stuff. I buy Vertigo. Hellblazer every month. I like the character of Batman a lot, but frankly there's too much. I don't really know what to get or when to jump on, although I have been reading "Catwoman." Ed Brubaker, I think, is great.

Lot of Marvel. Love "Tangled Web." Love Bruce Jones. I don't know what the hell he's got up his sleeve, but I'm dieing to see. Lot of set-up right now. I always try to pick up a new Image book. I try to pick-up smatterings of stuff all over the place.

JW: Who do you admire?

SN: Overall Alan Moore. You can't beat him. I think he's hands down the best writer. He proves over and over again that like, yeah he can slack off for a little while. "Yeah, okay, I'll do WildC.A.T.S" and then he'll just come out and he'll just piss all over everybody. It's amazing that he can do that. I like Mike Mignola for his visual style. There are so many.

This sounds totally butt kissing, but I feel like I'm working with some of my favorite people right now. I'd be a huge fan of what Paul and Ashley or Ben are doing right now. I feel real honored to be working with them. I'm having a blast.

JW: Final question is to find out what you do away from comics. What hobbies you have. How you spend your time. How you kind of decompress from this industry of comics.

SN: A lot of drugs! (laughs) Nooo, nooo ... yeah, just a little, not a lot! (laughs)

Movies. Classic movies. I'm a big fan. I love '40s and '50s shlock stuff and film noir stuff. I go on huge binges. I don't know why, but I love the '50s B-Movies..."Monster on theCampus," stuff like that. Just had a huge battle that I lost on eBay for the "Monster on the Campus" insert, original by Reynold Brown. I love his stuff.

Lotta movies. Love my comics. I'm still building my Silver Age collection because I was one of those idiots who had just about everything and then sold them when I was 18 because I thought a stereo and a guitar would be more fun! Now I have nothing. I don't have the comics. I don't have the guitar. Nothing! So I'm rebuilding my Silver Age collection again. I buy toys. I hang out with my wife a lot, cuz she enjoys all the same things I do. I play Playstation! I worked for Disney for a year at Disney Interactive. Came in as one of those guys who played video games once a year and now I'm an addict. I worked at an Interactive company and it was our job to play games. We played on-line Quake all day, so now I'm just a freak with it. So, I've got my Playstation 2 and my wife has to restrict me from buying more than one game a month!

JW: You're not playing EverQuest are you?

SN: No, nononono.

JW: Thank God!

SN: What am I playing now? I rented Siphon Filter 3. Just a great game.

JW: You mentioned a love of movies. Give me a quick run down of your favorite movies. Anything you could keep going back and watching again and again.

SN: Anything Bogart. "Maltese Falcon." I've seen it hundreds of times and would watch it a hundred more times. "L.A. Confindential." "Night of the Living Dead." "Halloween." I'm a big John Carpenter freak. When's he's great, he's great. When he's bad, he's ... it's not even funny! "Memoirs of an Invisible Man." Do I have to go any further than that?

JW: I liked that movie!

SN: You like that? Really? You know what, Chevy Chase drives me crazy. My wife loves the "Vacation" movies! I just want to punch him right in the (laughs) ...

"The Thing." The remake of "The Thing." "Halloween." I'm probably one of the few fans of the "Prince of Darkness." That's the one where they have the Devil! It's great! Great schlock, just crap stuff! My wife can't get past the lead guys moustache, so we never make it [through].

Then I saw "Vampires," "Escape from LA" ... I had to get up and leave when they started surfing. There's so many.

JW: What was the last DVD you bought?

SN: Oh god, I don't want to say ... "Planet of the Vampires!" (laughs) Great schlock.

JW: Thanks for joining me today.

SN: Yup, thank you. Thanks for having me.

[Editors Note: After hearing this interview Steve's wife would like it to be known, on the record, that in fact she does not like the "Vacation" movies. Steve may be spending some time on the couch for the foreseeable future. - JW]

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